'We sort of do God': The awkward relationship between the party leaders and people of faith

From the left: Natalie Bennett (Green Party), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Ed Miliband (Labour), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish National Party)and David Cameron Conservative Party) during the leaders televised election debate at Media City in Salford.Reuters

There are just over two weeks until Britain hits the polling booths and understandably our political leaders are looking for every opportunity to score our votes. This has meant all sorts of jumping through hoops to try and engage with religious groups, seen as significant communities around the country with a significant sway over the way people think. And for that, we thank them. Thank you, leaders, for taking note that many people in the nation are religious.

But churches, synagogues, mosques and Gurdwaras are not just any other kind of club or gathering of people. Yes, there are many who will go along to religious organisations for the community (or the food in some cases), but there are beliefs, ideas and traditions underpinning them that are unlike any other form of group 'ideology'.

Which is why it felt rather odd when Cameron on Friday said: "Like Jesus turning water into wine, you turn loneliness into companionship, you turn deprivation into comfort [and] you turn lost lives into lives with purpose." The 'you' in this context was the Church. So there's an odd conflation of the church's power to transform lives, with a miracle performed by the son of God... all as a way to link something from the Bible with Conservative policies and concepts such as the Big Society.

He's not the only one. They all do a bit of theological wrangling to bring together a mention of faith with policies. But trying to emphasise the faith credentials of political policies generally falls a bit flat. Christians, like the rest of the population, don't want to be lied to, and don't need to be pandered to either. I'm sure most people would just rather politicians said what they believe, why they believe it, and then stick to it.

Unlike American politics, we probably aren't more likely to vote for Ed Miliband because he shoe-horns in a bit of chat about how Labour policies fit with Christian ideals. We're already aware that none of the leaders of the major parties are happy clappy evangelical Christians who listen to Tim Hughes in the car to Westminster. 

So instead of the slightly awkward wrangling, shouldn't we be allowed to work out for ourselves whether we think a party's policies fit with our faith? And maybe that's the job of Christian leaders and pastors, to debate and help us work through which political party best reflects our understanding of God's vision for humanity.

What do the politicians actually believe?


David Cameron, Conservative Party: He's a member of the Church of England and generally pretty happy to talk about faith and his struggles with it. His famous line that his faith is "a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes" has been much quoted. In an article in the Church Times last year he went further and said he thought he was probably typical of many CofE members: "not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith" but nonetheless passionate about the Church.

In the same article he also said Christians should be "more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives". He also repeatedly reminds us we're a 'Christian nation' – much to the irritation of secularists, most people writing for the Guardian, and, oddly enough, quite a few Christians. Cameron tends to talk about the Church rather than God. He has acknowledged a number of times the "healing power" of the Church, and speaks repeatedly of the importance of church communities.

Polls show a Labour lead in the run-up to the May 7 election.Reuters

Ed Miliband, Labour Party: Miliband's an atheist, and Jewish by birth. On a visit to Israel and the West Bank last year he said: "In terms of faith for me, it's a faith about how you change the world. And that is actually true for a lot of religious people as well."

This weekend he said he had found "common cause" with Christians over a number of social justice issues, including food banks, inequality, tax avoidance and how the financial system works.

He also pledged to stand up for Christians being persecuted worldwide, and said a Labour government would establish a global envoy for religious freedom. "It's really, really important that Britain takes a lead on these questions and we speak up about this, we speak up about the persecution of Christians around the world," he said.


Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat: Shall we call him agnostic? He rejects claims that he's an atheist, and in an interview with Premier Radio this year he said: "I sometimes think it must be the most wonderful thing to be infused with faith. It's not something that's happened to me, it's not happened to me yet." It echoed similar comments in an interview ahead of the 2010 election, when he said "Maybe it'll happen one day," taken as a shift away from comments in 2007, when he gave a frank "no" when asked if he believed in God. Recently he's made more of the fact that his wife, Miriam González Durántez, is a Catholic and that he attends Mass with the family.

Clegg has openly called for the separation of Church and state. He's also not a huge fan of faith schools, and says that faith should be something "personal". But he's pretty keen on 'Christian values', saying in his Christmas message that the "core values" of Christmas – namely, love, charity and hope – are "universal, speaking to and uniting people of all faiths and none." And in the furore last year about Britain's status as a 'Christian country' he said he didn't have a problem with the idea, on the basis of our "our history, our heritage, our architecture, our values, of course it's infused by Christianity".


Nigel Farage, UKIP: It's complicated. He's keen to stress that UKIP is about defending "Judeo-Christian heritage" but isn't a churchgoer himself, apart from the occasional visit. When Cameron wrote for the Church Times, Farage responded in an interview with ITV: "We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judeo Christian culture, and after all we have a Christian constitution... So what Cameron is doing once again was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying for years, in an attempt to win back the voters that he has lost, but those voters are not going to go back to Mr Cameron."

Farage has also admitted that he "sometimes" prays, particularly for his family, who he says have been put under pressure by his rise in politics. They were recently chased out of a pub in Downe, Kent, by anti-UKIP protestors. Farage later branded the demonstrators "scum".

"The only prayers I would ever say actually would be which after last Sunday," he told ITV's Julie Etchingham, referring to the incident on March 22. Farage has four children – two boys from a previous marriage and two girls with his current wife, Kirsten – though they are kept out of the media.

"Perhaps [it] is more appropriate you know would be [to pray] for my family, to be well and to be happy and be strong and I do sometimes think that what I am doing is making their lives a bit difficult."